Donita Louise Hensley has spent her life looking to her Dena’ina Athabascan past, working to preserve the language and the culture’s rich heritage. Today, however, she finds herself sitting on what amounts to a $20-billion time machine that could take the Tyonek people into a rewarding future.
Hensley, who was recently married to her husband John Hensley, was formerly known as Donita Peter. In her professional life she also has experienced a significant change: in May she was named president of the Tyonek Native Corp. (TNC), which today is a successful company with $120 million in revenues, doing business in 12 states.
For Hensley, the most exciting aspect of her new job is Tyonek’s bright future.
“We’re sitting on $20 billion worth of resources in our backyard,” she said.
Tyonek has a 1,000-acre industrial site located adjacent to the village that was chosen for its mining, geothermal and hydroelectric potential. The village looks forward to coordinating its development efforts with CIRI, the owner of the subsurface estate.
“CIRI is a good partner. Tyonek can’t do it all,” she said.
Hensley said one of her tasks is to tour TNC’s business operations, which stretch over 12 states and include a number of 8(a) government contracting operations. Corporation leaders are focusing their attention on bringing as much back to the shareholders as possible, and part of that effort will be developing a settlement trust that will be an owner of much of the 8(a) businesses. While she had served on TNC’s board, she never envisioned playing an executive role.
“This position is something I never dreamed I’d be in,” she said. “I’m just a village girl at heart, and I felt I was on the board to learn all that I could. As president I have the unique opportunity to demonstrate who the Tebughna people of Cook Inlet are by illustrating the Dena’ina worldview to our business leaders in Alaska as well as leaders of the world, to the benefit of our shareholders.”
Her foundation in her Native culture serves her well, however, in corporate decisions, she said. “We think about our grandchildren and how any decisions will affect them. That’s how our Native people look at things.”
Hensley was born in St. Louis, Mo., to Fred Slawson and Louise (Chuitt) Slawson, one of five children born to the couple.
When Hensley was 7 years old her parents divorced and her mother brought her and her siblings to live in Tyonek. Having just come from a city where electricity, automobiles, running water, and telephones were commonplace to a village where there was very little electricity, few automobiles, no running water, and only one telephone at the community center was quite a culture shock.
Hensley became immediately immersed in the Dena’ina language and was mentored by her great-grandmother, Alexandra (Allie) Chuitt and her Great- Aunt Nellie Chickalusion. From the time she was 7 years old she listened closely as her mentors taught her the Dena’ina culture, values, history, stories, and songs.
“The Dena’ina Language is an expression of the Dena’ina relationship to the life-giving landscape in which we live and the means through which the stories are passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
A few years later she moved to Soldotna and worked for the Kenai Peninsula College mentoring, then teaching, students in a Dena’ina language and mythology class with Dr. Alan Boraas and her great-uncle Peter Kalifornsky. Here she furthered her education in the Dena’ina language and culture before going to work for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and then for Chickaloon Native Village.
Hensley is still working on her business degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is grateful to The CIRI Foundation for the scholarships she has received over the years and also grateful to CIRI for its support of the foundation. CIRI named Hensley CIRI Shareholder of the Year in 2006.